Impersonal Grief in Larry Levis’ “Elegy with a Bridle in its Hand”

Larry Levis’ poem “Elegy with a Bridle in its Hand,” describes the demise of a group of horses, but soon branches out to a poem of glory passed, of death and personal grief. We are told in the second line of the poem that the horses are aging quickly, effortlessly, and the first half of the poem goes into detail about the horses’ deteriorating condition,

Their front teeth were by now yellow as antique piano keys & slanted to the angle

Of shingles on the maze of sheds and barn around them; their puckered

Chins were round & black as frostbitten oranges hanging unpicked from the limbs

Of trees all through winter… .

The horses are not only described as aging, but are compared to things that are being wasted with misuse. The antique piano keys would not be yellow if they were properly cared for and used, the barn is in disrepair, and the oranges are rotting on the branches since nobody has picked them. This suggests that the horses are aging so quickly because they were neglected.

The speaker continues by describing the horses’ youth. He describes a case of worms, how one horse liked orange soda, and how another liked to stare at passing traffic. Neither of theses horses lived their lives doing what horses are supposed to do, and now it is too late. The speaker shows us this through a scene in which he tries to ride one of them, but it tires when it speeds up beyond a walk and has to be led home. Again, Levis uses an image of a misused object. The horse creaks, which Levis compares to an old rocking chair of “dry frail wood.”

The horses are becoming more and more a symbol of regret. In the second half of the poem, the speaker describes a race track that is emptying, horses that are “explosive and untiring” slowly disappearing. These images of horses are very clever because they carry so much weight, and  distract the reader from the fact that the speaker is really talking about himself. All of the images he compared the horses to in the beginning, the barn, the rocking chair, the unpicked oranges, the piano keys, are human objects. The speaker prefaces the last half of the poem with a statement that even further pulls the focus away from the horses, and to himself. Levis writes,

If I & by implication therefore anyone looked at them long enough at dusk

or in moonlight he would know the idea of heaven & of life everlasting

was so much blown straw of momentary confetti

at the unhappy wedding of a sister.

“If I & by implication anyone” is a very important phrase for the rest of the poem, because the rest of it is written in the third person. This “he” tricks the reader into looking away from the speaker, when really the speaker is saying “I.” Because he sets up “he” and “I” as one and the same, it is not a difficult jump to make the “they” of the horses into “I” as well. The final lines of the poem pull the focus completely to the speaker:

And if the voice of a broken king were to come in the dusk and whisper

To the world, that grandstand with its thousands of empty seats,

Who among the numberless you have become desires this moment

Which comprehends nothing more than loss & fragility & the fleeing flesh?

He would have to look up at quickening dark and say: Me. I do. It’s mine.

The “he” in the final line is mysterious. It could be the king, or the “I” which is the “he.” The “numberless you,” because the seats of the grandstand are empty, refers to the numberless amounts of people that the speaker is including in the “he” and the “I.” The grief in the end of the poem, therefore, is spread out. It is specific to the speaker, but applies universally.

Traditionally, the image of a horse, especially in a poem confronting death, is a heavy one. It conjures the idea of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Germanic worship of horses as a religious symbol, it’s presence of strength and power. In this poem, in particular, the horses are the opposite of those figures, which enhances the regret in the text. They are elderly, near death. They hardly have the strength to be ridden, and die in the poem without a fight or struggle. The speaker of the poem, through manipulation of pronouns and metaphors, makes the horses into tenors for himself. The poem cleverly confronts personal grief without having to go into confessional detail about its source.

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